I knew it wasn’t going to be summer toasty in Morocco in February, but I hadn’t expected to need to sleep in a jumper and my silk sleeping bag liner either. In hindsight, I should have gone the whole hog and cracked open my brand new super-soft goose down North Face sleeping bag for a much better night’s slumber; you live and learn.
I made up for a slightly depressing night’s sleep by consuming as much strong, black Moroccan coffee as I could the next morning over a filling breakfast of bread, chocolate pastries, cheese, and what appeared to be children’s yoghurts, judging by the Sylvester and Tweetie Pie decoration on the pots.
We had a free morning to explore Meknes, once the capital of Morocco under the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), before it was relocated to Marrakech. It was only a 30-minute walk from the hotel to the old town and Meknes’ main attractions.
We wandered through a doorway and into a square, discovering a gate we thought might be Bab Mansour. Named after the man who designed and built it in the time of Moulay Ismail, it is of monumental proportions and could be considered the greatest decorative gate in the whole of Morocco. We took lots of photos. Encountering another carved stone entry way, we drifted in and through a series of tranquil, empty courtyards, before eventually happening upon some shoes tidily placed outside a final doorway. Whilst wondering whether we had happened upon somewhere private that we really shouldn’t be, out came two ladies with their small children. We asked them if we could go in and they said it was, of course, ok. We had accidentally stumbled upon the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. Built originally in the seventeenth century, the ablutions room and burial chamber of the mausoleum were decorated very intricately. The wizened old custodian gentleman inside told us that the slightly incongruous grandfather clock in the tomb was in fact a gift from Louis XIV.
Venturing back the way we had come and avoiding a gentleman dressed as an old-fashioned water carrier and several horse-drawn carriages with tired-looking drapes, we finally found the actual Bab Mansour gate about ten metres down the road from the gateway we had first entered, and across from it the large expanse of Place el-Hedime. How on earth had we missed it the first time?
Having run the gauntlet of the young men touting for customers at the restaurants flanking the square, at the far left of the piazza we discovered the entrance to the market. Here it was bustling, and like in Casablanca no one batted an eyelid at our presence; except that is for a small boy of about four or five who threw a stone at me and giggled, running away with his little pals as fast as his legs could carry him. The fruit and vegetables laid out for sale looked colourful and fresh, far more appealing than those on the supermarket shelves back home. There were live chickens clucking and squawking and boxes of chirruping chicks, sprayed pink and blue.
On the other corner of the square was the souk, a more peaceful area. Each street seemed to provide a more photogenic scene than the last. We succumbed to a sweet pastry at a tiny bakery, counting that as lunch.
Back on the square we scouted out a rooftop café. We sat down for a cooling juice and watched the now busy square come to life. There was a group of young lads trying to sell SIM cards, all swagger in their orange uniform tops. Another man offered horse rides, whilst another tried to coax people into having their photos taken with two unruly monkeys decked out in football shirts: Chelsea and Barcelona I think. I wonder what else would have come out of the woodwork if we had more time to stay and observe.
Before too long it was time to return to the hotel, to catch the bus to Volubilis. The countryside between Meknes and Volubilis was a vibrant green, littered with olive trees and bright marigolds.
Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, developed as a settlement from the third century BC and grew rapidly under Roman rule from the first century AD onwards. It covered about 42 acres, a substantial colonial town on the fringes of the Roman Empire.
Our guide was excellent and it was still early enough in the season for the site to be relatively empty. We explored relatively unhindered for an hour and a half. Inspecting the fabulous array of mosaics that were fortunately preserved under mounds of soil when the earthquake that eventually destroyed most of the buildings struck back in the middle of the eighteenth century. A cheeky reminder that the Romans were far less prudish than most of today’s societies came when the guide took us over to a plinth displaying a giant penis, which he proudly informed us would have pointed the way to the whore house!
After Volubilis we moved on to Fes, breaking the 90-minute drive only briefly to admire the view over a reservoir and to stock up on dates and oranges.
Our hotel in Fes, Riad Reda, a stone’s throw from the royal palace, was incredible. Tucked away in the souk, with an unassuming entranceway, the inner courtyard was a riot of earthy tones, with each archway on every level housing a tree. It was paradise, carefully concealed from public view.
Dinner that night was a magical mystery tour. We hopped in the mini bus and headed across to the medina. Mohamed lead us up into the darkened back streets and down a tiny and not terribly salubrious alleyway where he knocked on an extremely unassuming door. Inside was a family restaurant, decorated with a riot of dazzling tile work, with ceilings of carved woodwork that must have taken months to create. We feasted on bread, olives, harissa, carrots, potatoes, rice, beans, lentils, beetroot, aubergine and cauliflower dishes, served in a tapas-like presentation. The others had a parcel of meat and spices in pastry, called a pastille, whilst I had a special veggie version. Dessert was a mixture of fruits. It was lovely. After we had eaten, the lady of the household gave us a tour of the riad, duly proud of her beautiful home and business.
Day two may have started with a chilly night’s sleep and a pot of children’s yoghurt, but it would end with a Moroccan feast and a cosy hotel room with a heat pump.